Friday, December 9

Super sensitive exoplanet hunter captures its first data | Digital Trends Spanish


Astronomers will soon have a new tool for hunting exoplanets, as the instrument Keck Planet Finder (KPF) of the WM Keck Observatory recently took its first observations. KPF’s “first light” observations captured data from Jupiter, demonstrating how the instrument will be able to detect planets beyond our solar system in the future.

Located in Maunakea in Hawaii, the new instrument detects exoplanets using the method of radial velocity. This works by looking at a star and looking for a slight wobble, caused by the gravity of the planets orbiting it. This wobble slightly changes the light coming from the star, in a way that can be used to calculate the properties of the planet. The instrument measures spectra, or the wavelengths of light coming from a star, with more massive planets making bigger wobbles.

The Keck Planet Finder achieved first light on November 9, 2022 after capturing a spectrum of Jupiter. W.M. Keck Observatory/Caltech/KPF Team

The specter of Jupiter was captured on Wednesday, November 9, and was followed by a specter of a star called 51 Pegasi, which is known to host a planet called 51 Pegasus b. “Seeing the first KPF astronomical spectrum was a moving experience,” said Andrew Howard, KPF principal investigator and professor of astronomy at Caltech in a release. “I’m excited to use the instrument to study the vast diversity of exoplanets and unravel the mysteries of how they formed and evolved to their current states.”

This exoplanet search method is particularly good at detecting larger planets orbiting close to their stars, allowing for a view of exoplanets in the habitable zone of smaller, cooler stars.

“Stars that are cooler than our sun have habitable zones that are closer to the star,” Howard said. “Any Earth-like planet in this zone would be huddled close to its stars like a campfire. We will continue to tune and refine KPF to detect even fainter wobbles, with the goal of eventually having the sensitivity to detect Earth-mass planets orbiting stars like our sun, the true analogs of Earth.”

James Chong, infrastructure technician at Keck Observatory, assisting with the delicate erection of the Zerodur optics bench in the basement of the observatory where the instrument resides.
James Chong, infrastructure technician at Keck Observatory, assisting with the delicate erection of the Zerodur optics bench in the basement of the observatory where the instrument resides. W. M. Keck Observatory

KPF will be able to detect these very slight oscillations due to its high sensitivity, which is capable of seeing movements of stars as small as 30 centimeters per second. The spectrometer was built using a glass-ceramic hybrid material called Zerodur, which can keep its shape constant even when temperatures change, making it highly sensitive as it avoids distortions due to temperatures. “The material, which comes in giant slabs, is very brittle and difficult to work with, but it’s what makes KPF so sensitive to smaller planets,” Howard said.

The instrument is now in its commissioning phase and will begin research work next year.

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